May 24
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What Lawyers Really Mean When They Say They Can’t Afford to Change Jobs

If you talk to lawyers who are dissatisfied with their jobs, you will often hear them say the following phrase:

“But I can’t afford to . . .”

Some feel they can’t afford to leave the practice of law.  Others perceive that they can’t leave their law firm partnership.  There are many specific circumstances that lawyers—especially experienced lawyers—feel they can’t afford to leave.

So what does “afford” mean in this context?

When I first started helping lawyers make career transitions, I assumed that my clients were speaking in financial terms; they felt that they didn’t have enough savings or otherwise felt that their financial situation prevented them from pursuing other options.  Now I know better.  Most of the time lawyers who say they can’t “afford” to change jobs aren’t speaking in a strictly monetary sense.  And here’s how I know.

If “afford” really means money, more money would solve the problem.  But time and time again, more money didn’t change their attitude.  The lawyer in question still felt that they couldn’t afford to take concrete steps to look for another position.  And some of the lawyers I have had this conversation with, readily admit they have more money than they know what to do with.  I know of one large-law firm partner who has bought an apartment building a year for more than 10 years.  This is not a man who has the slightest cash flow problems.  His living expenses are probably less than 15% of his monthly take-home pay.  And yet he feels that he can’t afford to give up the six and seven-figure compensation package he receives annually.

I will be the first to admit that this example is a bit of an outlier.  But in my experience it is different in degree rather than in kind.  Many of the lawyers that I have worked with don’t have tens of millions in assets, as this gentleman does.  But they commonly have much more money and a greater capacity to make money than a vast majority of people who do change careers.

So what does “afford” mean in this context?  It often has more to do with emotions than with balance sheets.  Sometimes it means that, “I grew up poor, make more money than I ever imagined, and my family and friends would ridicule me if I left such a high-paying job.”  Sometimes it means that, “I have hated this job for the last twenty years.  The one thing it gives me is money, and if I walk away from that money, I will have to admit that I have been wasting my time for all these years.”

To be sure, there are often financial implications to leaving the practice of law or changing jobs.  Most of the time, however, the feeling that you can’t “afford” to leave is part of a natural resistance to making a big change in your life.  Once you understand that “afford’ doesn’t necessarily equate with money, you will be in a better position to explore what you really want to do next.

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